Trooper Ian Waters
Unit : No.3 Troop, "A" Squadron, 6th Airborne Reconnaissance Regiment
As the 'spare man' of 3 troop 'A' Squadron, I went with the other spare men, 'B' Squadron and most of Headquarters Squadron to the transit camp outside Brize Norton Airfield in Oxfordshire. (The airfield is still operational and from time to time shots of it appear on TV). We became attached to HQ Squadron and attended a number of briefings covering our unknown destination. Rumour said it was to be the Channel Islands - wishful thinking on someone's part. Confined to the camp we made one trip to the airfield, here we practiced unbolting the tail unit from the fuselage of a glider. The nuts and bolts had been fastened and unfastened by countless pairs of hands and almost removed themselves. Difficulties that might arise were not mentioned.
A baseball bat and soft ball appeared and a form of rounders was played. Card schools flourished and a 'crown and anchor board' attracted gamblers. It was here that I watched with amazement a para sergeant stake £10; followed by another £10; followed by £7 - all lost. This I couldn't understand and whilst I played cards for small stakes, to lose £27 in about 3 minutes was unbelievable, my pay being about 30 shillings a week.
Our group for the fly-in included a jeep and trailer and 5/6 'spare men' and we would travel together to France to Ranville (never heard of it) not far from Caen (vague idea where it was).
On 5th June in the evening, the para's, blackened faces, heavily ladened, some with extra kitbags, went down to the airfield. Next day it was our turn.
Early afternoon we were fed - stew. Then kit fastened on, push bike picked up and down to the airfield. On one side of the runway were the tugs, Stirlings and Albemarles and on the other side the Horsa gliders.
The jeep and trailer had been loaded earlier. Our bikes were just thrown in. The tugs taxied round, the glider was hitched and away we went. The line between tug and glider does not remain taut. As it slackens, the glider gently drops and as it lightens up it gently rises - just like going up and down on waves.
Travel sickness was unknown in those days - sea sickness well known, air sickness hardly mentioned. On my one short sea journey, with a swell running, I was sick. Glider trips, short in duration, twice around the airfield - cast off - then a short almost soundless descent to a not uncomfortable landing.
The air armada came close together to cross the channel. Before this I had started to be sick and the sickness continued for the remainder of the journey. It must have been an impressive sight crossing the invasion fleet - but in my misery I didn't see a thing.
The co-pilot poked his head round the cockpit calling that we were a few minutes from landing. With a few bumps, no greater than on an airfield, we rolled along and came to a halt. Out of the glider, the air is full of gliders coming in to land seemingly from all directions. Men and vehicles are already moving off. The glider pilots said farewell and disappeared. Pandemonium it appeared to be. We had to unload our jeep and we started with a problem for the glider had finished with its nose down and tail up in the air. To detach the tail and fit the ramps called for a reasonably level glider, which ours was not. Our first attempts failed to level the glider. Soon we found that if we all leapt up and grasped the tail our combined weight would lower it and the unscrewing commence. Unfortunately, we were not heavy enough to lower it sufficiently for our feet to be on the ground and to hold the glider in position. So, eventually aching joints made us let go and up would go the tail. Numerous repeats took place until eventually the tail was released, ramps fitted and out camp the jeep and trailer. The landing zone was deserted now, save for the broken gliders. From time to time a shell would land on the Landing Zone and bullets passed overhead.
The great surprise was the quietness after the noise and movement just after landing. With the jeep (Cpl Parker) leading we rode off into battle on our push bikes - push was the means of locomotion for the crop was too high to allow for riding.
The party had not gone very far when we met Colonel Parker and his bodyguard (the only other Officer that I knew by sight except our own Regimental Officers). After a short discussion he directed us to the road running alongside the Landing Zone as our rendezvous was in German hands. Slightly strange being led by Cpl Parker and meeting Col Parker. It was almost dark and here most of the Regiment had harboured. There was great activity for almost all the tanks were 'out of action' with chutes and cords entangled around wheels, sprockets and tracks. Cpl Parker gave me a mug of tea from a flask and shortly afterwards the 'spare' men wrapped themselves in their gas capes and went to sleep.
Next morning the order was - follow the tanks. One had to pedal furiously to keep them in sight especially when the road was good. Within minutes, I realised it was not a scheme when, by the side of the road, was a knocked out 6 pounder with some of the crew dead alongside. Some 200 yards ahead shell bursts dropped behind the rear tank. No change but to follow. Either we were too small to bother with or the guns needed a rest - but the shelling ceased. Within a couple of minutes a Germans half track hurtled towards us - flying a large red cross, carrying British and German wounded.
Somewhere ahead 'Besa's' opened up, the tanks stopped and we caught up. On the move again until a base was established close to the junction of the Escoville/Troarn Road and Breville/Troarn Road - about 2½ miles from Troarn. A couple of tank troops move into Escoville but were driven out, leaving one tank behind. It was here that Cpl Sheffield was awarded the Croix de Guerre with bronze star for, despite being seriously wounded, getting his tank to safety.
During the next few days battle raged all around but nothing came directly our way. The most fearsome sound being Naval gun fire when it seemed as though express trains were passing overhead.
One night after dark, along with another trooper I manned a Boyes anti tank rifle - both of us crouched in the bottom of a ditch when it commenced to rain. Soon we were in a couple of inches of water. Suddenly he announced - "We'll suffer for this you know later on in life - bound to get Rheumatism". I suspected Rheumatism would be a cheap price to pay for survival. The Boyes anti tank rifle did not seem likely to deter any German tank.
On June 10th I took over as gunner on the Troop Sergeant's tank of 3 troop. The crew Sgt Thomson, Trooper Bevan and myself, I considered this a great improvement. The Tetrarch would probably keep out bullets, it carried foot and water - my 48 hr pack was long gone and would not be replaced. To 'dig in' a hole was dug and then the tank driven over it to give extra security - soft ground to be avoided. It even had a sleeping bag. That evening the Troop, Troop Sergeant in the lead, moved down the road toward Escoville for it had been reported that German tanks were moving. It was dusk when we set off and by the time we reached the village it was dark and little could be seen through the gunsight. Escoville had changed hands a number of times and now no-one either British or German was to be seen. Without finding the enemy tanks we were recalled, hand traverse brought the 2 pounder to the rear and we returned to Laager. The next day we moved down into an orchard in Ranville, digging our trench under the tank for protection. The following morning it was needed for just after dawn the orchard was heavily shelled, causing some casualties. We then moved up to a position near to the Le Mesnil crossroad in land surrounding Ferme Lance on the road to Breville. A position share with one of our water cooled Vickers Machine Guns. One of its crew was more than slightly deaf. He would 'take cover' from a shell passing miles away but failed to hear those dropping in our area.
The Divisional front now became static and the troop had speels near the pottery - much better, at Le Mesnil where our field had one rule - everything that came into it had to keep to the edges - no short cuts by cutting across the field. The troop which took over this position and with whom we alternated, followed the same rule. Normally all was quiet but from time to time reminders of war came - shells, mortars and at least one bomb.
Most mornings a SP let off a few rounds into the area - usually coinciding to the 'stand to' one hour before dawn. Our greatest trouble at Le Mesnil came from mosquitoes with their incessant drone and vicious bite. Sleep at time became impossible and I spent many a night trying to sleep in the turret. Sitting on the seat, with forehead resting on the gunsight pad and one arm dropped over the gun, head wrapped in a camouflage scarf. At 'stand to' we presented a strange sight. I was the least bitten but Tom and Sergeant Thomson had faces that looked as though they had gone the distance with Joe Louis. With eyes almost closed through bites it was doubtful if we could have seen the Germans had they come.
One afternoon a 15 cwt truck emblazoned with the signs of 21st Army Group and SHAEF turned into OUR field. No attempt was made to keep to our camouflage pattern by following our tracks around the field edge but driven straight in towards its centre. The driver got out, went to the rear, and climbed in and lowered the sheet. It was roughly equidistant from each tank, some forty yards away. No words were exchanged. Some two hours later the sound of an approaching plane was heard. Usually planes were ours. With a roar, just above the trees a German fighter bomber flashed by, dropped its bomb as it passed. It landed alongside the truck. Fortunately, the ground was soft and the bomb went well down into the earth before exploding. Two fast moving soldiers leapt over the tailboard and surveyed the scene. The explosion had left a neat round hole some six to eight feet deep alongside the truck. Most of the displaced soil went up in the air and landed on top of the truck. The top and side sheets were split and the metal supports for the sheets twisted and the engine cover was battered. The engine worked, so in they climbed, and away they went. That was our only visit from the higher echelons of the Army.
Rest periods were near to the River Orne and about 500 yards from the bridge. Life still centred around the tank and our sleeping quarters beneath. Each tank cooked its own food from those famous ration boxes. A - G - the greatest luxury from the boxes was 'tinned pears', rarely seen by forward troops. At some stage Sergeants received a bottle of spirit and late one night Tomo staggered back having consumed most of his bottle. He quickly passed out and Tom and I downed about half of the small quantity remaining. When he awoke next morning all hell broke loose. Some lousy devil had drunk most of the gin which he had saved for us. He stormed around the other two tanks threatening all kinds of retribution should he find the culprit. We never did tell him.
To begin with we didn't move out of the Regimental area when at rest. I think we were supposed to be able to move within an hour, but could have managed in far less time. Nothing stayed off the tank for long. It was used and then stowed away again. During an early rest period we strayed into Ranville, then to the church and churchyard and the overflow field alongside. Ranville War Cemetery today is both impressive and moving, as are all war cemeteries. In 44 it was far more sad and vivid and never forgotten. Each mound of earth had a wooden cross from tree or fence showing the name and unit of the person buried. Sometimes his "dog tags" and helmet were present. Looking at these mounds of earth containing a person unknown to you - yet not many days ago you could have passed in the street in Amesbury or Salisbury, or chatted to in a pub in the towns and villages on the Plain, alongside charged the ticket barrier at Waterloo Station hot foot from the Salisbury train, sat alongside in Garrison Cinema or Theatre in Larkhill. Up till now you had been lucky - would it continue?
On those first rest periods we stayed near to the tank, and here acquired a new skill. On our first rests RSM Paddy Dunne descended on Tom - "the CO wants some milk and you are a farmer, so get some". My job was to hold the front end whilst Tom did the milking. Maybe some milk did reach the CO - the RSM took it away but we got our share as well. The farmer's wife viewed us with suspicion - no doubt the yield was down - but she never managed to catch us milking her cows. As time went by the period of hours to move was extended during rest periods, so we strayed a little further afield, staying on our side of the Orne and within walking distance, not that there was much to see or do. A Bailey Bridge had been erected - from its pontoons we would bathe or swim. Pegasus Bridge had the Gondree Café, now world famous.
Seemingly we must not have known of it for we never visited it, but went instead to a one roomed bar in Amfreville, which served cider and calvados which you tended to drink sitting on the stone wall outside. It was shared by airborne troops and Commando's. To get to it the Landing Zone had to be crossed with the carcasses of gliders and from time to time gun batteries would appear in the fields.
Then, in July, we passed through the ruins of Caen, finishing up about 5 miles from Bayeux where the Tetrarchs were to be exchanged for Cromwells.
Operation Goodwood - uninvolved
For this the Armoured Divisions crossed to our side of the Canal and River. The build up was impressive. A SSM of the Guards Armoured Division was very optimistic - showing his map which went to the outskirts of Paris. We, occupying roughly the same positions as D + 4 were bemused by all this might and power. The 1000 bomber raid which opened the battle was more impressive - clouds of smoke and dust coming up from the target area - bombers everywhere. In our rest area was an even more impressive sight, but rather foreboding - rows and rows of field ambulances awaiting their call to action.
Heavy rain, a few days later, ended the battle. Wet, bedraggled, tired, unkempt, back came the infantry - just as they do after every battle when the momentum is lost.
Recollections - The Ardennes and Holland
About mid December the Regiment was placed on standby. Any hope of leave at Christmas disappeared and Christmas dinner was taken early. Guns and equipment were checked and live ammunition issued. On the 23rd of December the Regiment was split into two groups. Tracked vehicles and wheels were reduced to carry crews of two and travel to Tilbury, the remainder moved to Folkestone. We were billeted in large houses which had been used for billets for seemingly many years. Our money was changed into Belgian Francs and then with coppers left in our pockets we were allowed out into the town. It couldn't have been a happy Christmas without money. Next morning a group of us went to church. Later in the early evening down to the harbour, crossing the Channel in a landing craft coming ashore at Ostend. The crossing must have been smooth for I was not seasick. Soon after landing we were loaded into three tonners and taken to Waregem. Our billet was a "seminary" each Trooper having a small cell/room containing one bed and not much else. It was our introduction to the freezing cold of the Continent. Days and nights merged, for most days it was misty or foggy or both. During the day the temperature did not rise above freezing. We carried one blanket each so at night all your clothing remained on your body trying to sleep huddled under your blanket. After the first night everybody wanted to be on guard duty, the guardroom contained the only source of heat in the building, its large metal stove glowed day and night and as the evening progressed more and more of us joined the guard to enjoy this "hotspot". Waiting for the vehicles and the rest of the Regiment to arrive meant that duties were few and though allowed out we had orders not to stray very far away. Whilst we could move around the town not only ourselves but the locals were staying indoors for all the shops seemed closed. In the square, a novelty to us was a hut selling hot waffles but these were expensive.
These first few days characterised our stay in the Ardennes and Holland. Always cold, usually freezing, ice on the roads and buildings and snow everywhere. With mist and fog at times and occasionally a little very watery sunshine. After four days the main party arrived having been fog-bound in the Thames. The Troop was reunited and the appearance of our Bren Carrier meant we were completely kitted out again and we could look forward to a warm sleep. The next day we were to move off, so that evening we went into a nearby bar where our Troop Officer - Lieutenant Scott-Martin and Sergeant Hart joined us. The journey to an unknown destination started early. Bonner and I in the back of the Carrier spent some time going over our equipment, discarding those items which we considered useless, anti-gas equipment etc. This made more room for ourselves and any other useful items that might come our way. The journey seemed long in mileage and exceedingly long in time. Movement periodically came to a grinding halt for no reason. Fortune smiled on us on one occasion when we stopped directly opposite a working brewery. We naturally crossed the road and moved into the factory to watch the process. Free beer was supplied and even more welcome was the lovely hot surroundings. Eventually we moved on. The Regimental diary says delays were caused by icy roads but twas not the ice that caused the long delays, for most of the time the road surface did not inconvenience the Carriers at all. After thirteen and a half hours the journey ended at Six Bras which became our night halt. Soon after our arrival the Troop Officer of the Troop to the rear of us during the days march came round with one of his crew clutching a bundle of some kind wrapped in a gas cape. With a crash the contents of the cape landed on the floor. "These items fell off your Carrier and I am returning them". Next morning they remained in Six Bras.
Next morning we were heading for the river Meuse, I am unclear as to the sequence of events over the next few days and unfortunately they do not fit in to the record in the Regimental diary. The Regiment's task was to patrol the Meuse from Dinant to Givet. The Germans were somewhere on the other side of the river but not in close proximity. We were not aware of this as will be seen later on. On one occasion the Troop followed the road from Dinant to Givet but did not stop in either town. On New Years Eve we were billeted with a family on the friendly side of the river. A little celebration took place but having a heavy cold I was upstairs on wireless watch. In the middle of the next night we were called upon sometime after midnight to relieve a Troop of 53rd Recce, as we drove into their position their Armoured Cars moved out. There was no exchange of information. Without any idea of the position, or the whereabouts of the Germans, the whole Troop was on guard for the remainder of the night. Daylight showed us that the house we were in (no inhabitants) was within ten yards of the river, where there was a landing dock suitable for one barge. No movement was allowed in front of the building or near the windows facing the river. To our rear we could see, about two hundred yards away, a road and also a railway running alongside the road. Infrequently an army wagon or jeep would pass along the road. At about 11am a shout brought everybody to the rear. Passing along the railway was a goods train. Obviously no Germans could be anywhere near the river at this time. A few hours later we left this house but no other unit took over from us. Again, another night in this same bitterly cold weather, sometime after midnight we arrived at our destination. A crossroads, with a Belgian Pill Box, which had fairly recently housed cattle. So you had a choice, sleep in these squalid conditions or outside. Bev and I tried to sleep outside. We found a large tarpaulin sheet and laid it out on the snow with two thicknesses beneath us. On top of this went our sleeping bags into which we climbed fully clothed and again a double thickness of tarpaulin was pulled up over our sleeping bags. No chance of sleep in this freezing weather so before long we were out of the sleeping bag and ventured into the Pill Box. Those inside couldn't sleep either. The situation did improve when our Troop Sergeant (Tommo) now S.Q.M.S. Thomson arrived in a jeep with some tinned rations and a drink of rum. We then more cheerfully awaited dawn.
Depending on your outlook the snow and ice on the roads made it exciting, exhilarating, difficult, or scary. The "wheels" travelling a little more easily than the "tracks". Near misses, with other vehicles, walls, hedges and ditches occurred every day.
With the temperature below freezing the seats in the rear of the Carrier next to the engine were warm and pleasant. Ignore the fact that you are sitting on top of the petrol tank. In front of the Carrier, driver and commander both became colder as the day went on. Sharing these same conditions, open to the elements are the crews of the two man "Dingo" scout cars.
To keep out the weather called for all clothing to be worn. From the skin upwards, underwear (perhaps long johns) string vest, shirt, jersey, blouse, trousers, airborne smock, if possible your greatcoat and over the top of everything a white camouflage suit. Depending on the situation everything would stay on at night. Called upon to carry out a foot patrol we set off in deep snow even on the road. The Troop Sergeant was ahead and after about three hundred yards a slight column of steam could be seen coming up from the neck of his white camouflage suit.
The Regimental task was to take over the bridge crossings in Namur both A and B squadrons were located close to the Namur-Marche road. Our billet was a farm occupied by mother and daughter. Father had been taken away as forced labour by the Germans. They had also taken away the farm stock. It had been reported that the Germans had dropped parachutists, disguised as American Troops and we carried out some patrols looking for these parachutists. One patrol took us to a railway marshalling yard, guarded by an American unit mainly of coloured soldiers. One guard dressed in his blouse and trousers with no overcoat was shivering with the cold. We arranged a deal with him, one British Army Greatcoat for a .5 Browning Machine Gun and a box of ammunition. Eventually the gun was fixed on top of the engine of the Carrier.
One day, mother and daughter came into our room rather agitated calling out that in the fields there was a Sanglier (wild boar) and that we should shoot it. It took us some time to extract this information from them. The Troop Corporal settled himself and shot the animal. It was not dead and the noise that it was making made it seem that it was more likely to be a dog than anything else. He suggested that I went and killed it. In no uncertain terms I declined and he went out and completed the kill with his .38 revolver. It was a dog, leaving us all downcast for the rest of the day.
Namur to Han Sur Lesse
We left Namur after dark in the freezing cold and with the roads skating rinks. In the early hours whilst negotiating a bend we slid off the road and into the ditch. Seemingly out of petrol we were stranded. At a guess we probably had some fuel but the angle that the Carrier finished up at probably meant the fuel could not get through to the engine. A couple of other Carriers slid into us and acting as a buffer they were able to stay on the road. Eventually we abandoned our Carrier and moved into a derelict café across the road. Daylight brought LAD [Light Aid Detachment] with petrol and soon had us back on the road. Quickly we descended a steep hill and to our surprise found most of the Carriers from our own and other squadrons and also some of the wheeled vehicles. They were all unable to climb the opposite steep hill/slope. Some wheeled vehicles managed to get halfway but no further. The morning sun slowly thawed the ice to a sufficient degree to allow us to continue on our way. From now on it was every vehicle for itself. Skids and slides were commonplace and there was much cursing of the vehicle in front if it was moving more slowly than yourself, especially when going uphill for your driver had no desire to lose any speed in these road conditions. Eventually we arrived at Han Sur Lesse and were billeted in an empty house on the outskirts of the village. The vehicles were unloaded and as darkness set in we prepared our evening meal. Soon afterwards we had to load up again as the Troop had to move to Rochefort. The journey was a repeat of the previous night, no lights on the vehicles, no idea of the steepness or length of gradients, or where the edge of the road was. It was difficult for the Dingos but horrendous for the Carrier. On the outskirts of the town, lulled by the hot engine, I fell asleep. Awakening I found that the Carrier had stopped, no sign of the other three members and a tank gun barrel passing over the top of the Carrier and my head. I had seen enough tank guns to know it wasn't one of ours. Climbing out I saw a chink of light and inside were my colleagues. Our overnight stay was in a house containing a Para Company HQ and a Troop from B squadron it included our friend Jim Croft whose Dingo had been blown up on a mine. Jim's foot was bruised and battered and to move around he had a sweeping brush as a third leg, with its head tucked under his armpit thus keeping his foot clear of the ground. With a parrot on his shoulder he could have been Long John Silver.
Next day we returned to Han Sur Lesse. Here we discovered our billet was only a couple of hundred yards from the cave system - Grotte de Han and we assumed that this was the entrance to the system. There was never any time to explore the system. The most we made was a hundred yards inside and then back out and back to the billet. More than fifty years later I discovered that we were opposite the exit and not the entrance. The row of houses which contained our billet looked unchanged but I had no idea which of the houses had been the one which we occupied. In '45 it was uninhabited with no sign of the rightful owners. Our longest patrol, in mileage and time was towards Champion. We had hardly started when the bridge carrying the road had been partially blown up. It was about fifteen feet to the stream below. Half the road's surface had disappeared into the stream and in the remaining half you could see mines near the surface. Tom was left behind with the three vehicles and the other seven of us set off. The road had twelve to twenty four inches of un-trodden snow and might be mined, the road edges had less snow but they also might be mined and the trees came almost to the side of the road. Both routes of advancement were tried, both were hard work. On the road you were visible some distance ahead, off the road going was easier, you had some cover but if you or someone nearby dislodged the snow on a tree then you could almost be knocked off your feet by the deluge. In the end the visibility was put on one side and our progress was on the road. Our objective was about four miles or so away. After completing about two miles a figure some hundred yards ahead was coming erratically towards us. It soon became obvious that it was a civilian and at a hundred yards whilst the snow itself made difficult walking his gait was more like that of a drunken man. On arrival, he was well and truly plastered, but glad to see us. When we didn't have any booze he passed on. Tom, back with the vehicles viewed his erratic progress with great suspicion. Stepping out from cover when the civilian was only a few yards away he made the drunk lose his footing and crash down on the road. According to Tom it took him about quarter of an hour to regain his feet. When Tom couldn't offer refreshment he again continued his way down the road. With about a mile to go to the village we were joined by a Troop from the Belgian SAS unit. Their numbers were larger but we continued together forming a skirmish line and approached the crossroads before the village from the flank. Three SAS went into the village returning and reporting that the civilians had said that the Germans had left some two hours previously. We set off back to our vehicles and the SAS moved off in a different direction. Regaining the vehicles we arrived back in Han Sur Lesse as darkness fell.
We carried out other patrols without encountering the Germans. However journeys in the Bren Carrier had unsettling moments - on one occasion being saved from a very steep drop into space by skidding gently into a very large woodpile at the side of the road.
Whilst in Han Sur Lesse routine was broken by a visit to a mobile bath unit housed in a burnt out building with only the outer walls and bits of the inner remaining. It was glorious to go inside and get under the hot sprays. However to dry yourself you had to go outside the house and with the temperature below freezing drying was quickly forgotten and it was back under the hot sprays. More and more soldiers came in and no one left. Eventually we were packed in like sardines but then the hot water became cooler and eventually cold. So you had the choice of freezing under cold water or going out and drying yourself off in the cold air. As we left the unit we were issued with clean underwear and shirts. The village's one hotel had Five Troop billeted upon it and it was the only source of beer in the village. The doorman was usually Bob Jewel - ex policeman and largest member of the Troop. On our one visit we gained admittance due to two members of Five Troop being ex members of our Troop in Normandy. Long days out, the need to prepare and eat food on return and the cold tended to keep us in our billet after dark. We returned from an early patrol to find that all the other Troops had whitewashed their vehicles to fit in with the snowy background. Either whitewash had run out or for some other reason we remained uncamouflaged. On January 16th we left Han Sur Lesse and returned to our previous billet outside Namur.
At this time the Division was largely withdrawn from action for the battle of the Ardennes was over and the Germans in retreat. Our task was to guard the bridges over the Meuse but because of the situation it was a kind of "long stop" action. Reg Smith (Smudger) was not with us as his scour car required a major repair. Welcomed by Madame and her daughter they quickly enquired, "what has happened to the other man." To me the easiest explanation was to say that he had been wounded. Unfortunately a couple of days later Reg and the car rejoined us. And now they were curious to hear about his wound. Reg said to me "You told them I was wounded so you better tell them where I was hit." I do not know if I gave a convincing explanation or not. Within a day or so of our return tensions seemed to creep in during our dealings with the family. Very soon they were asking. "When are you going?" Of course none of us knew to that question but eventually we asked. "Why do you want to know when we're leaving?" The daughter (about thirty years of age) was due to be married and she and her new husband were to occupy the room that we used as our sleeping quarters. They were assured that the room would be vacated before the wedding. Fortunately that statement was not put to the test.
"Go out and have a good time".
Short notice, we were freed from our standby duties and allowed a half day of freedom. This was our first since leaving Waregem. It was passed to us with a message from Geordie Gabutt (Squadron Sergeant Major). "Go out and have a good time." After our midday meal, the Troop (excluding the Troop Officer), set off for Namur town. Downhill all the way walking and slipping along those icy roads. Progress was slow and the town was further away than we thought. Time passed, everything was closed nothing to see a very frustrating walk on a cold, miserable, misty afternoon. We eventually reached a bridge crossing further into the town but there was no sign of anything open, not a bar in sight. A council of war was called and as darkness was not far away, the return journey uphill. So we decided to return, a nearby shop seemed open and in we went. It was an Ice Cream parlour. I still cannot believe that in that bitterly cold weather we ordered ice creams but we did. Having eaten them we set off on our way back to our billet with its welcome warmth.
Another Troop was located about a mile away. The nature of the ground and general mistiness meant that each was unaware of the others existence. Respecting "landladies" must have been in contact. Preparing to move becomes obvious to the civilians at your billet. Equipment is being checked and cleaned and more and more is stored on the vehicle which at other times was left at the billet. Then we are invited to join the other Troop as both families will give us a "farewell tea." My memory does not recall that we provided any food but we probably did. I do recall that they provided some generous portions of home-made fruit pies. The drink was tea. With my schoolboy French I was the best (with a Lancashire accent) speaker in the two Troops and incidentally poor at that. At the end of the meal someone else proposed a toast to our host. The host responded and as I was enjoying myself I was not paying attention. Suddenly silence descended and all eyes fell upon me to translate what the host had just said. I asked for a repeat but now panic set in and I couldn't understand. A couple of further repeats and I eventually realised that the lady was saying "In the future think of us occasionally." My embarrassment and meal and their kindness I have never forgotten. Next morning, just after first light we said goodbye to mother and daughter, thanking them for allowing us to stay in their home. The Squadron assembles, then the Regiment and off we go. Crossing quickly into France then travelling North first into Belgium and then to Holland and it was farewell to Namur, welcome to Sevenum. We stayed overnight in a large unoccupied barracks and reached Sevenum the following day just as it was going dark. An English speaking Dutchman arrived and helped with the billeting. He was showing great interest in the "markings" on our vehicles and asking questions. The questions were too many for the Troop Officer who reported him and he was marched away. He returned the next day when we discovered that we were in Sevenum and that he was a schoolteacher from Blerick the town on our side of the river with Venlo on the other side in German hands.
The cold, snow and ice remained with us, but it seemed marginally warmer. Our billet was another farmhouse - larger than the one in Belgium. The family was also larger, father had been taken to Germany but left behind were grandfather, mother, son aged about seventeen (had to be hidden from the Germans) and three daughters. One of the daughters was being courted by the schoolmaster from Blerick. The curfew was operating and if he came to the farm he had to be escorted home afterwards. The main room of the building was our sleeping quarters. But in the evening the family joined us and in all probability they were in the room during the times that we were out on patrol. This room contained the main source of heating which was provided by a very large stove. On which, the chimney travelled upwards and then right-angled crossing the room and spreading its heat before disappearing in the ceiling. Grandfather had the warmest spot, a chair nearest the stove, if for any reason he left the room I was in that chair in a flash, on his return I would reluctantly give it up. This developed into a kind of game between myself and grandfather.
Most days we were sent out on patrol, mainly on foot and these were carried out in the fields and woods leading towards the river. These were through mushy snow with heavy snowfalls from the trees and very wet. We were looking for Germans who during darkness may have crossed onto our side of the river. Slight thaws took place and this caused the roads to be put out of bounds to tracked vehicles for they very quickly wrecked the road surface. On a couple of occasions we spent part of the day carrying out road repairs on one of the approach roads to the village. One feature of the patrols was the railway line. Its tracks had gone, probably taken to Germany to be melted down, so it became an additional road and was well used by all vehicles.
Cinema Show at Weert
Offered and accepted the opportunity of going to a cinema show at Weert, some twenty miles away. It was not a wise decision. Transport was a jeep which meant that there was three of us plus the driver. No sooner had we left the village when the windscreen iced up. There was no sign of life in the town on our arrival and eventually we found a cinema. I have no recollection of the film but do recall that the return journey was even colder.
The family didn't have any English and we didn't have any Dutch. French was of no use so communication were very limited and largely by gestures. Whilst the thaws reduced the depth of snow it still remained but winter was slowly losing its grip. We returned one lunchtime after a morning patrol around the woods to find the boy sweeping the snow from a patch of ground not far from the rear of the house. Every now and then he attempted to stick a spade into the earth. Curiosity made us ask the reason for this activity, many gestures followed on both sides. Eventually we came to understand that when the Germans arrived the family had dug a hole to hide their pans and other metal objects so that they could not be confiscated. Now they would like to use them again. More gestures followed until he understood the British Army would use its technical expertise. A wooden box was lifted off the front of the Carrier from which came a mine detector. It was now to be used for the first time. Up and down the patch of land (maybe their lawn) we went everyone having a spell "listening in" for the equipment was supposed to detect any metal beneath the surface. Two hours passed with nothing heard. The boy is fed up. Obviously very unimpressed with our technology. He picked up the spade once again and thrust it into the earth. A cry of triumph - he had hit the jackpot for the rattle beneath his spade showed that he had found the kitchen pans.
Sent On A Course
Notwithstanding your length of service the Army always had the ability to take you completely by surprise. The kind of surprise that made you feel as though the ground had suddenly disappeared from beneath your feet. Surprise was registered, like earthquakes, on the Richter scale. Having all your surplus kit in stores and queuing for your leave pass when your leave is cancelled measured about 4.0 Here we are in Sevenum after our evening meal when the Troop Officer called in, (not an unusual happening), but as he was leaving he called across to me. "8.30am tomorrow you will be picked up with your small pack and bedding for you are going on a course." Then he added, "a boating course." About 8.0 on the Richter scale.
"What has boating got to do with airborne forces? Any way I'll be seasick."
"That may be but off you go."
When we were all assembled there were about half a dozen from the Regiment. We went South passing through Maastricht, a large town with a large MP's sign on its outskirts. Then a few miles further on we debussed at a small village. The whole course 20/30 strong was billeted in the village pub which was also the course headquarters. Next morning we paraded outside the billet turned right and marched down the road, stopping a hundred yards later with the leading rank about one yard from the waters edge. We gazed at this very wide fast-flowing river, the river Maas whose fast surface speed was obvious to all. Two engineers stepped into a small rubber inflatable boat with an outboard motor attached, it was held to the bank by a short piece of rope. The outboard was started the rope thrown ashore and the boat nosed out into the current. It managed about five yards before it was seized by the current and side on, at a considerable rate of knots, it disappeared round the bend and out of view. Considerable discussion took place amongst the course members, centred on the theme. "That's not for me!" Some half hour later the outboard reappeared making very slow headway and only when it was as near as possible to the bank. The course turned about and marched back to the billet. It was then announced. "Course cancelled for today, river too rough." With little money and no transport the course members wandered around the village or stayed in the billet for the rest of the day.
Day Two started as a replica of day one but with an even quicker return to our billet. On return however we were introduced to a flat canvas boat. The sides pulled up, struts placed to hold up the sides and lo and behold we had a boat. Crews numbered about ten, five each side. The boat could be lifted and turned over with the gunwale, the upper edge of the boats side, resting on your shoulder. We then practiced a short march with the boat in this position. Most course members were 5'10" or more, so at 5'8" it passed over my shoulder but I still held my arm up alongside the boat. We didn't go very far before returning to the billet. Here the Para walking behind me pointed out that he didn't mind me not carrying any weight but he didn't expect me to march along with my feet dangling in the air and him carrying me as well as the boat.
Day Three at assembly we were informed that the river was still too turbulent but instead we're going to a nearby canal with our boats to get in some practice. The course members sighed with relief that we were not going out onto the river. Away on a very placid surface we became waterborne, seemingly pleasing the instructors.
Day Four this was the day for us to return to Sevenum. The others were picked up early and disappeared. Eventually three jeeps, with a very young Second Lieutenant in charge arrived, we loaded up and off we went. After some time it looked as though we might not be following the correct route. Maastricht had not reappeared. Then it seemed we were heading for the Front Line. Gun batteries were seen in the nearby fields and then neither personnel nor vehicles were on view and there were signs of very recent damage to buildings in the form of shell and bullet marks. Eventually a Military Policeman on duty at a crossroads stopped us. Discussion took place between him and our officer and then we turned about going back some miles before picking up another route. Many hours later we reached Sevenum.
Shots In The Dark
War rarely produces pleasant sights and rarer still are sights which are almost beautiful. One such sight came in the Ardennes, where moving in the dark well after midnight a Troop of 5.5 gun Howitzers opened up. The muzzle flashes lightened up the snow covered area around the guns and as the rearmost gun fired the flash lightened the other gun positions as well as the field. For a brief moment the gun crews could be seen crouched around the guns. Then all was quiet again and the darkness returned. A target calling for the Troop to fire one round/gun.
On the 21st of February we left Sevenum to return to the U.K. Somewhere during the journey the Regiment was split in two. Vehicles with minimum crews carried on to Ostend and across to Tilbury. The remainder of us moved to Calais. This was quite a length journey as the Germans still held Dunkirk. Overnight we slept in a transit camp and next morning marched down to the harbour. On the way we passed groups of other troops coming away and they called across that there were no sailings due to the rough sea. However when we arrived we marched aboard a landing craft and set off for home. It was a diabolical journey, the flat bottomed boats are uncertain in calm seas and in rough seas they're a nightmare very quickly I was seasick and so were many others. We made our way up onto deck and clutching the sides of the ship were sick overboard. Most of the passengers finished off clinging onto the rails like myself where frequently large waves crashed over you. Eventually we arrived at either Folkestone or Dover and thankfully were back on firm land.
Belgium and Holland were strange compared with Normandy. In the Ardennes we never bumped into any Germans. Mines were always a threat and caused some casualties in the regiment, Sevenum was even quieter. The Division's role was that of "holding" with a wide river between the two armies. I cannot recall coming under enemy fire in either area.
Looking back our attitude to civilians seems to be one of remoteness. Time off was limited and therefore our only real contact was with the families with whom we were billeted. I do not recall us showing any interest in their lives and yet we limited their lives. We took over part of their homes and made it ours. Whilst being army wise I was too young to be anything other than unworldly. However I do still remember the friendliness and a feeling that they were happy to have us about the place.
Germany - Recollections - Warts & All
After the first few days in Normandy the Division was penned in its bridgehead to the east of the River Orne, until the breakout in August. Belgium and Holland were dominated the bitter cold, snow and ice, with limited movement. Germany, it was on the move day after day. On the 21 February we left Sevenum eventually arriving at Ostend. A crew of two was left with each vehicle and the rest of us travelled by train to Calais. The following morning a very strong wind was blowing and as we marched down to the harbour many other groups were marching inland for their sailings had been cancelled. We were not so lucky and boarded a small landing craft. Gale in the channel with heavy seas. Most people becoming seasick and as we were crowded below decks we soon came up aloft and with the sea breaking over us it became far worse than the glider flight in Normandy. After landing, it was back to our billets at Larkhill.
The Division was to fly the Rhine except nobody told us where we were going, but a shortage of Hamilcar gliders restricted flying to four tanks from regimental HQ and two other tank troops plus the mortar troop. The rest of the regiment was scheduled to cross the river by bridge. Preparations for departure included blanking out the divisional signs on our vehicles. Red berets were exchanged for black and to the outside a RAC unit would be on the move. On the 15th of March we left our camp and moved to the transit camp at Tilbury. During the short time we were in the transit camp the tannoy made a request for Stewarts Horse, Lt. Col. Stewart was the Commanding Officer of our Regiment. Tom and I had finished up in a large tent. One person claiming that Stewarts Horse was an old Indian Cavalry Regiment. Next day it was down to the docks to load into a Tank Landing Craft. After tea-time we manoeuvred round the docks and into the river eventually anchoring within sight of Southend-on-Sea. It didn't take long for a rumour to circulate "liberty boats" were shortly taking personnel for a night out in Southend. One naive trooper went off to find the Squadron Sergeant Major to have his name added to the list of those going ashore. Sail after dark, to a very smooth crossing arriving at Ostend some time after daybreak.
Whilst waiting on the quayside for the order to move off witnessed an interesting argument between a Royal Engineer and one of our Troop Sergeants.
Royal Engineer "What's become of your red berets mate?"
Troop Sergeant "What do you mean red berets? We are Royal Armoured Corps wear black berets." The argument became more heated but was finished by the Royal Engineer.
Royal Engineer "You can say what you like, it's not many weeks ago since I loaded these vehicles and I can recognise some of the personnel and that time you were all wearing red berets and had the airborne divisional sign painted on the vehicles."
On the 26th March we crossed the Rhine by the Bailey bridge. On reaching the far shore heavy damage to the houses was obvious and as we arrived in Hamminkeln a couple of paratroopers were dragging a dead German out of the building. It was obvious that we were headed for the front line. Next morning we moved out towards Brune and Raesfeld.
Compared with the Recce Regiment of an Infantry Division we were lightweight. They had heavier vehicles with more of them to each troop and with support sections added on.
Our role was to scout ahead of the main lines of advance and to pay attention to the flanks.
For the first few days these roles were followed. Eventually losses of vehicles and personnel and lack of reinforcements led to reduction in our capacity to carry out these tasks. 'A' squadron eventually had to be re-organised, as it was little more than a half squadron. At times other Divisional Recce Units were called in to take on some of these activities, also the armoured cars of the Inns of Court and the tanks of a Guards Armoured Brigade.
Scouting ahead of a parachute battalion we reached a village and paused waiting for them to come up. They then led us through the village, peering around corners looking for danger before our lead vehicle turned the corner.
Clearing the village we went ahead again dismounted some distance ahead after crossing a bridge over a stream and took up defensive positions just in case the Germans attempted to regain the bridge and blow it up. A large van the size of a removal vehicle came into view and it was allowed to reach our position before a burst from a bren, aimed across the vans nose, brought it to a halt. The 3 soldiers and empty van were handed to the Paras.
The roads was now uphill and together we moved towards the crest, when suddenly we were under small arms fire. With the Paras we continued upwards until the white flag was shown as we were firing into the trenches from the flank. The Paras Platoon Sergeant led his men by running 10 yards ahead of them towards the enemy. He was shot dead some 30 yards from the trenches. The Germans had some casualties but most became prisoners.
On reaching the crest we paused to examine the ground ahead. Nothing could be detected so down the slope we went towards a road junction some distance away. Part way down the trap was sprung. We were again under small arms fire. Then about four light flak guns joined in. Their fire was accurate and it was a question of retreat up the road. Our carrier, the slowest of the three vehicles became the nearest to the enemy and now became the major target. A small lane ¾ of the way back meant we could pull in out of sight of the guns. All this seemed to take ages but in reality it was probably measured in a few minutes only. The fire from the flak guns had been intense but the only damage was to my sleeping bag which had received a direct hit the cannon shell exploding inside the bag and setting fire to it. I guess that my head was lower than usual for the shell must have passed over the carrier to hit an object fastened on the back. The experience also made us aware of the delicate detonator inside the shells for they exploded on hitting the telegraph wire above our heads.
On seeing what had happened to us the Paras had carried out their usual manoeuvre. Way ahead blocked move around the flanks.
Bring up the rest of your Troop
We had to contact the Recce Regiment of 3 Division who were on the flank of our division. Tension comes in such assignments as you have no wish to be fired on by your own side. Covered half the expected distance when we came upon 6 vehicles belonging to them, nose to tail, and burning furiously. There were no signs of the crews or of the aggressor. At a guess probably a tank or anti-tank gun. Eventually we passed the vehicles hoping that by now all the ammunition inside them would have exploded. Eventually we came upon a squadron of 3rd Recce and as we pull up across comes a Major to speak to the Troop Officer. Tom switched off the engine so the conversation is clear "come to make contact" "glad you're here. There's a German tank ahead so you had better bring up the rest of your troop." "This is my troop - just three vehicles".
Our objective was a "crossroads", it had been reached and we dismounted just beyond the junction. The road was lined with tall terraced houses. I leaned against the house wall with my colleagues nearby. A door opened, 10 yards ahead, and out stepped a sailor. He commenced to walk away from me. Dressed as a sailor should be - wide bottomed trousers, sailor's hat and blue collar. He had walked about 10 yards when I realised that it was not a British sailor but must be a German. Sailor Ahoy, come here. No weapons so it was indicated to him the direction that he should walk to become a prisoner of war.
There was a non-fraternisation policy in force. Technically we were supposed to have no contact with the civilian population. Our daily routine was that if we were lucky we would harbour early evening. Usually the troop was isolated but behind the front line troops and not far away from the rest of the squadron. We had to cook the evening meal, tinned food, and then on many nights we were on guard duty. The guard would be relaxed if there was a river between us and the enemy. So we saw little of the civilian population. If we billeted in a house we never saw any sign of the occupants or original occupants. Being near the front discouraged civilians from moving about. Although at times we would come across groups of "slave labour" on the move, heading for home.
There was a couple of occasions when it appeared as though the war was between two armies and the people who lived in the locality were merely spectators. The first time was near Lengerich, where we were sent to block a road coming in to the town from the south. The main attack was following the Greven - Lengerich road. We reached the road about two miles away from the town. Eventually a troop of armoured cars from the Inns of Court joined us. Some 50 yards away were four houses and the occupants were outside looking towards the town. On the town shells were falling and occasional columns of smoke or dust would rise up. The German equivalent of the Jeep burst into sight heading for the town. Fire from the Inns of Court brought it to a halt, the driver still in the vehicle but the other two members got away pursued by bursts of tracer from the cars. The activity had no effect on the bystanders they made no attempt to go to the driver, who was obviously wounded, but continued to watch the town. Tom and I went across. The driver was semi-conscious, and needed medical attention. There was nothing we could do so with many gestures and a little German and a pointed gun two of the civilians brought a wheelbarrow and loaded in the driver and set off down the road to take him to the local doctor. I can recall another similar incident when the locals were watching our tanks firing about half a mile ahead when 50 yards away were a number of wounded Germans requiring attention. Once again we drew their attention to the plight of these soldiers.
Some German troops, some members of the home guard "Volkssturm" would fight on even though their area was occupied by allied forces. We were at a village, Brink, waiting for a bridge to be put across a river. It was reported by "slave labour" that the farmer on the outskirts of the village had fired at the first British troops to enter.
Our Troop was detailed to bring in this fanatic, perhaps a werewolf. The troop officer decided to make our intentions obvious. We stopped on the road some 30 yards from the farmhouse, debussed and made a show of the arms which we were carrying. Three men moved round to the back of the house and the officer led the way up the front path, followed by the sergeant and then myself. Briefly pausing the officer lifted his revolver and thumped the door a couple of times with the butt. He then stepped to the right, the sergeant to the left, and with my bren gun at the ready I am left facing the door. The door opened and looking at me stood a German civilian, about 5'2" tall, shaking with fear this man didn't seem to be a werewolf. Behind him was his daughter, about 15 years of age, beyond her the mother all gazing at me. To my surprise the girl spoke out in English "what is it that you want?" I entered followed by the other two. The troop officer gave an explanation. Denial from the girl. It was quickly decided that I would take the man to Squadron H.Q. and the others would search the house for weapons. It was a hot day with about a mile to walk carrying a bren gun weighing 28lbs. After about 200 yards, I removed the magazine from the gun and handed it to the German to carry. Upon reaching Squadron H.Q. the Squadron Sergeant Major asked which was the prisoner. Eventually the civilian was released as no weapons had been found and it seemed unlikely that he could possibly have fired at our troops.
Warts and all
Now reduced to two vehicles a dingo and a carrier we were out on the flank moving along a minor road when suddenly the carrier nose dived into a ditch. Tom was automatically found guilty of bad driving. Denied furiously. On dismounting it was found that three spokes of one of the wheels bogie had fractured leading to a loss of control and the carrier was now stranded in the ditch. The dingo rejoined us, LAD [Light Aid Detachment] were summoned and water put onto boil for a brew. The water was now being heated by the largest petrol fuelled blow lamp that I have ever seen. It was trained on the side of the Dixie and the method was much faster than using the primus stove. Eggs being plentiful were hard boiled and the tea made when LAD arrived. They provided some tea and an offer was made to share the eggs. Before accepting one of their crew enquired
"Did you use the water from boiling the eggs to make the tea?"
"No, wouldn't do that".
Somewhat later "what's that with brewing with water that had previously been used for boiling eggs?"
"Well! It can give you warts".
Over the next few days I anxiously eyed the hands and faces of my friends and also my own face when shaving. Nothing appeared. Perhaps LAD were not as lucky.
The final days
We had now reached the Elbe River and moved into a holding area. Everything was checked guns and vehicles cleaned and light guard duties were taken during daylight. Billeted in a bungalow with a touch of civilisation for we ate our rations off plates but still did our own cooking. Two women (possibly owners) came in and washed up. It snowed during our stay but it was just wet and mushy stuff.
Off again over the Elbe, during slight snow showers, along with American air borne troops, (17th Airborne Division I think), moved inland away from the river and harboured for the night. Before crossing the troops had been reorganised and once again we had 3 vehicles.
Next morning 3 Troop was first away from the Squadron. The situation was changing and instructions had been given detailing "behaviour" if we bumped into Russian Troops, firing of "Very Lights" etc. Quickly we reached a small village and without stopping passed slowly and quietly through its centre and out of the other side. Later the wireless reported that the following troops had found and taken between 20 and 30 prisoners still sleeping. This was the first time we had known this situation occur. Now, a quarter of a mile away on our flank, some of 200/300 Germans fully armed were marching along obviously looking for someone to whom they could surrender. Our Troop Officer was not interested and for a short period we moved along parallel to each other but in opposite directions.
We then came upon half a dozen horse drawn carts some of the horses had been unharnessed and freed but remained nearby. We paused to scan the cargo one cart contained nothing but money - old notes or so it seemed. For a few minutes we must have been millionaires. Tom, a farmer, insisted on unhitching the harnessed horses before driving on. Because there seems to be no opposition and now no signs of the Germans a certain amount of weariness creeps in. After covering a few more miles a cluster of farms on the outskirts of a hamlet is ahead of us. We halt, Sergeant Hart in the leading Dingo looks back and gestures. I climb out of the carrier and come up to him and we walk along the road. For once I am just ahead, walking by the side of the field wall which is built of undressed stone similar to that found upon the moorland walls near my hometown. There is a sound of running feet nothing to be seen. I stop and into view not 10 yards away is a little boy, he takes one look at me and yells something and bursts into tears and continues yelling. For a moment I cannot understand him, my German is limited to about 20 words and then I realise he is calling "Nix schiessen". Schiessen. Don't shoot. A gesture with my arm indicates that he turns round and call "Schnell, Schnell" and away he goes. Move on and a large barn is alongside the road. The sergeant gestures and we peer around the framework, nothing to be seen, move into the barn where a passageway leads off. A few feet ahead is a closed door. The sergeant standing back pushes open the door. To our amazement there are about 8 men and women sitting around a table eating. Seeing the door has opened they are now motionless all eyes fixed on us. The men are jacketless, braces on view, the women wearing aprons. No social niceties.
To our amazement three men stand up picking up their uniform coats. With a wave we follow them out of the barn and then point down the road in the direction we wish them to go. The vehicles come up and we climb in. On we went, then the 19 set came to life. New orders, new objectives taking us towards the flank. All urgency gone. Soon we reached our objective and moved a few miles further before harbouring for the night. Before nightfall it was being said that B Squadron had made contact with the Russians. The next day we moved to the west of Wismar, a mile or so from the Baltic. Despite no announcements being made on the wireless, now tuned to the BBC or Forces network, we knew the war in Europe was over when the Squadron Sergeant Major found a barber and it was a haircut for everyone.
Our final billet was in the largest house in a tiny village, two rows of houses one each side of a road coming down the hill with the largest house facing up the hill, marking the road a "dead end". A lane passed the side of the house and continued to the Baltic Sea some mile and a half away. Wismar was about 5 miles away. The whole squadron moved in the house but being first we secured the lounge on the ground floor as it was the largest room as our sleeping quarters. Sergeants and officers set up their messes and thus reduced our numbers overnight but reinforcements increased the number in the troop to the largest it had ever been, 12 in total. We never saw the house owners but their dog a St Bernard stayed with the house. It perhaps usually slept in our room overnight, for at nightfall it joined us. Most of the day it was to be found at the top of the steps just outside the front door.
Every other day was a rest day, when it was fine we went down to the Baltic in the troop car. We had found it in the village and although it was rather unreliable it could usually make it to the sea. Its poor performance was probably due to army petrol being too rich. But it lasted until we set off for home.
Duty took us to an even smaller hamlet but nearer to the Russian Zone. At the crossroads in the hamlet we had one man on guard and his task was to turn back anyone who came along the road from the Russian Zone. Each duty day a few civilians would come along, three or four together mostly women with sometimes an older man. The guard lifted his rifle as they neared. He would gesture for them to turn around and head back the way they had come. Reluctantly they would comply. Our duty had been carried out. When watched from the upper storey of the house that we had requisitioned they could be seen leaving the road and moving into the fields and circling around our crossroads. They would then rejoin the road some two or three hundred yards away and out of sight of the crossroads. But we had carried out our duty and made sure that no-one passed along the road and over the crossroad. It seemed to us doubtful that they would make it back to and over the Elbe. A curfew was at 8pm when we embussed and drove all 50 yards of the main street, reversed and drove off to our billet. During the day the Germans worked in the fields or in the gardens behind the houses, going inside just before curfew.
On a pleasant sunny evening we were climbing aboard our vehicles when it was noticed that the villagers were still outside. Gestures were made but nothing happened. The troop officer annoyed at this behaviour picked up a Bren gun, slammed in a magazine and fired a burst up in the air. Consternation amongst the villagers but no move to go inside. Gestures indicated that they wished to talk. A combination of limited German from us and limited English from them found us being told that the curfew had been lifted. Wireless to Squadron confirmed the news. Grapevines usually travel faster than organised communications.
The journey home took one day. Travelling with the advance party we went by road to Luneberg and then by plane to Brussels. We sat on the tarmac for about an hour and then loaded into a Dakota aircraft which flew us into Brize Norton and then by army truck to our old billet at Larkhill.
Sound asleep in the troop tent, within the Palestine police post at Ranana we were rudely awakened by Sergeant Gray our troop Sergeant. We had been ordered to stop and search and interrogate all travellers in all vehicles coming along the main road from the north. Joined by the Troop Officer we scrambled into the jeeps travelling for about a mile before stopping and forming a road block. Weapons loaded, safety catch on, hurricane lamps ignited and placed in the middle of the road some 50 yards ahead of the block. It's 2am and little comes down the road. Forty five minutes pass before the first car arrives stopping short of the lamp. A call to come out of the car brings two Jewish men into the road. They and the car are searched, a suitcase opened. They say that they are going to a relative in Tel Aviv and are allowed to continue. More than an hour passes when an Egged bus arrives with a dozen or so mixed passengers. Asked to alight with all their luggage they let us know that they are unhappy with this treatment. We also are unhappy, nights in Palestine are cold in December and we would prefer our warm tent to this duty. Suitcases inspected, coach searched nothing found and they are allowed to continue. Before getting back in the coach their protests become louder. They point out to us that we are the third road block and don't we know that the curfew and road blocks have been lifted. After they had gone the jeep and the Troop Officer drive back to Squadron to check the information. Returning quickly and confirming everything the passengers had been saying. We can go back to base and bed. Grapevine again.
...with a pile of hammocks in the corner. Looking around I felt it would be OK for the Squadron, for at that moment only A Squadron was in the area. Soon the rest of the Regiment joined us and some others. A few slung their hammocks but many like myself slept on the floor in their clothes.
Reaching the open sea it was choppy or rough and soon I was seasick, eating nothing until we entered the Med. Without food I continued to retch. For the first two days Tom and I and a couple of others were detailed to keep the 'head' lavatories clean. On the second day Tom complained - why more than one day on this fatigue. I couldn't really understand his complaint for this was the area where I was spending most of my day.
After Gibraltar it was pleasanter and I started to eat again. The previously journey for the ship had been to Canada?, and for an hour each day a cabin opened and you could purchase chocolates, biscuits or soft drinks. There was no selection - type of chocolate etc. I can recall obtaining peppermint creams and celebrating my return to normal.
Routine on board was humdrum. Every now and again there was boat drill. You could go on deck whenever you pleased - keeping fit by walking round and round the ship - an occasional quiz was organised. Music provided by a record player with one record - Side Andrews Sisters - You Get No Sauce with 1 Meat Ball. Side B - Rum and Coca Cola.
The Regimental Diary indicates that we landed at Haifa. I thought we arrived at Jaffa. I know we scrambled down nets and into a barge and across the barge and on to the quayside. A short distance away a train and railway wagons with a painted sign showing 8 chevals, 36 hommes. Aboard - battery broke out oranges for cigs. Eventually everyone had an orange before we chugged off as darkness fell. No Flying Scotsman this train with a pace like the milk trains in [? ?] at home. The journey didn't seem long and not too uncomfortable, with a warm breeze blowing into the wagon. The large sliding door was left open, allowing the breeze in and providing a view of the countryside. The train slowed and the warm air became scented and then the lights of a town appeared.
The train stopped and we had arrived in Gaza. 3 [?] took us to our camp P P & O. It was tented - medium sized marquees, each housing a troop. It was a few miles out of town, close to the road leading to Rafah, Khan Unis and Egypt. The Regimental Office was a more substantial building, as was, I think, the mess room and toilet block. 36 seats. Cannot recall showers, so ablutions were outside.
Bed & palliases for sleeping and a mosquito net and a tin box for storing, The first day you were warned to shake your boots before sticking your foot in just in case a scorpion had moved in during the night. Only saw 1 scorpion during my stay in Palestine and that was out in the open. Wild dogs, piards? or perhaps domestic dogs would sometimes appear around camp. The guard alsation would rush out in their direction - no contest for speed and agility. They were in a different class. They would play with the guard dog, ambling away so that it appeared the guard dog was gaining. Then up a gear and the guard dog would return exhausted.
There is evidence to show that music should have been in my blood. An Army Bandmaster (played all the instruments, aunts that were stage [?] my mother enjoyed singing. However, my father couldn't sing but could dance in time. His son did neither, could not even whistle a tune.
At Gaza I am called to the Squadron Office, and then told to report to the RSM. This was to be our 1st and last meeting. Approach the R O in a reasonable frame of mind as I could not think of any misdemeanour that had been discovered. In his office he eventually looked up from the papers in front of him.
"You know (I didn't) that the Regimental Bugler has gone to Sarafand? to attend the funeral." The room spun round three times. I couldn't grasp what else he was saying for coherent thought had gone and it was beating in my head - this fool expects me to blow the bugle.
He finished talking, looked at me and said "Right, you'd better go and report to Sgt Trebelcock. I left the Orderly Office in a daze. What had Sgt Trebelcock (the cook sergeant) to do with bugle playing. On reaching the cook house and finding the Sgt, I informed him that the RSM had sent me. He smiled, "Good! The ration corporal has gone on leave and you must be taking over!!" That was a relief - although I had no idea of the duties of the ration corporal. It became a pleasant fortnight. Sgt Trebelcock showed me my billet, brick built, tinned roofed small room containing a bed. The roof had a collection of gickos (Lizards) who clattered around during the day and night. To my surprise they never fell off the roof nor did they come down the wall.
Sergeant Trebelcock explained each day a 3 ton lorry and driver would take me to Sarafand? to collect the Regiment's rations. He showed me how to inflate the Regiment's strength to obtain more extra food. He pointed out that we had more than enough bread and should try to leave Sarafand without any bread. No chance to do - no-one wanted bread - the staff of the stores ensured that everyone took their share. On return the daily rations were broken down into 3 collections based on numbers. 1 Officers' Mess, 2 Sgts' Mess, 3 our own cookhouse. Morning started with the duty cook waking me with a cup of tea. Breakfast in the kitchen or in the cookhouse with my troop. Then off to Sarafand where we loaded up the day's rations, including bread.
During the return to Gaza we would park the lorry at the roadside and rummage until we found a tin of fruit, cutting a newly baked loaf in two - we had our snack lunch. The first night as Rations Corporal I left the NAAFI and headed back to my new billet, which meant I had to walk through the open air cookhouse to reach the comfort of my bed. The problem was that the cookhouse contained about 20 wild dogs searching for scraps. Before I could get in they would have to come out. Shouting didn't work - but 2 large tea buckets thrown onto their midst did - I then took a tea bucket into my billet just in case I needed to come out during the night.
All in all it was an 'eye opener'. I had never realised such a 'cushy' number existed in the Regiment. After a pleasant fortnight back to 3 Troop, where the [?]
We were sent on leave immediately after returning from Gaza. On reaching Amed? station late at night, faced with the prospect of walking back to camp, we were surprised to be greeted by Sgt Clarke (Nobby). He had been wounded in Gaza and had rejoined the unit a few days previously and had decided to bring a scout car to the station to provide transport back to camp. At the wheel he commenced and completed the journey with 14 passengers, many of whom stayed aboard by clinging on to and being supported by better placed passengers.
The camp itself housed just our regiment and we had a NAAFI. Beer was served in a glass (a beer bottle with neck cut off). I think tea was served in the same kind of glass. Do not recall the NAAFI staff, but on the camp were some local Arab civilians, including tailor and laundry man and bookseller.
On our first visit to Gaza we noticed a NAAFI sign, and as it was mid morning brew time, Tom parked the jeep outside, removed the rotor arm and in we went. After looking round the thinly populated downstairs, we decided to examine the upper storey. Here there were about 20 soldiers (from our Division) sitting around at tables drinking tea or coffee.
As we entered the room conversation became muted and all eyes were on us. As we wanted a brew we kept on heading for the counter, but were intercepted by a Sgt, "Sorry lads - upstairs is for Sgts and above, Other Ranks ground floor. Down below we went, thus ended our one and only visit to the Gaza NAAFI.
The camp cinema was well patronised with frequent changes of films. Seated outside without overhead cover there were wonderful views of the stars before the projector flickered into life. To our enjoyment the film would sometimes appear upside down and reel 3 appear before reel 2. Then the shouts of the audience would alert the projectionist that something was wrong. The introductory and interval music was the one and only record. Harry James playing Cherie, Cherie [?] Side 2 I cannot recall. On the [?] on our deck area there was a record player and 1 record. The Andrews Sisters with Rum & Coca Cola and You Get No Sauce with 1 Meatball.
The Squadron had a Tank Troop and 4 Jeep Troops. The crew of the jeep was usually 3, Armaments -our personal weapons. We did troop training, occasionally the full squadron would embark on an exercise lasting a full day. On one occasion the squadron went into the desert area beyond Beersheba. Overnighting at an unmanned fort. Stone wall surrounding the area and one small stone building in the centre. On guard duty outside the wall in the early hours an Arab materialised from the darkness. Within seconds he produced a cup of hot sweet tea for both of us and then spent the rest of my guard 'stag' trying to purchase my rifle. Little did he know that it was loaded, with one up the "spout" and from time to time pointing at him. On another similar scheme we spent some time at Fort Burnot - Fire
Other training exercises took us into desert areas. Sand and scrub made up the landscape. Real desert occurred south of Rafah with large dunes and deep sand.
Our troop and another from the Squadron accompanied the 2nd/1 on a training exercise which commenced at Gaza by road to Beersheba. And then following desert tracks leading to Aquaba on the Red Sea ( miles). The latter part of the journey was extremely uncomfortable for me, the person on the rear unsprung seat. The tracks were at least 50% potholes some large and deep and a lot of the time you were thrown around like a rag doll. We overnighted within 50 yds of the sea at a guess in the area of the resort Elat. Daylight revealed Aquaba - Spinneys wharf and not much else. Leaving Aquaba the tarmac lasted 1 mile then it was quickly tracks again to Mann, then Petra.
This was an unforgettable afternoon, having no idea what was ahead of us we walked down the stiq (a narrow gorge 8 to 12 yds wide with rock faces some hundreds of feet high on either side). Eventually you caught a glimpse of the Treasury.. We all marvelled at this structure and then wandered around the area seeing the amphitheatre, cave dwellings etc. As darkness fell we rushed back up the Wadi and overnighted at the P Post. As we cooked our meal we were joined by some bare fleshed members of the Post who commenced to sing and dance. Illumination was by a couple of Tilley Lamps and the dance routine was speeded up when someone kicked over a dixie of boiling water.
Next day we aimed for Amman where it began to rain, which lasted until we reached the RAF Station. The soil/sand of the tracks was red and the jeeps were coated in this gooey mixture. Having managed to obtain a meal we drove off, noting a large sign warning that mud must not be left on the CP. Night stop was PP at Jericho, next day Jerusalem and return to Camp at Gaza. All in all a wonderful experience.
Took us to see the sights in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, Tel Aviv with an excursion into Jaffa next door. Regular visit to Gaza passing through the town and to the beaches beyond. We made 2/3 visits to Jerusalem taking in the sights, Wailing Wall, Stations of the Cross, various Churches including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as well as the Mosque of Omar, the city wall and the gates Damascus, Jaffa and St Stephens into the city and other sights.
A couple of football matches at The team made up of 1st Division professionals - only player I can recall was Wilf Mannion.
An interesting local match was the Squadron Team v .., they won. Afterwards the team and supporters was entertained to a light meal in the local restaurant. After the meal a trio commenced to play and dancing started. Some of our group asked Jewish girls to dance with them and were all politely turned down.
Jerusalem and Bethlehem
Change again was in the air. We were to be absorbed into the 3rd Hussars. I think it was their CO who came and spoke to us indicating their role in the desert. He didn't impress us for he had said that at El A? their objective was the Railway Station which they reached with only about 4 tanks left in action. It was never clear to me who was the Army top man, but I do know he made a poor choice leaving me in the Army. After completing initial training my two previous units had, when I left, ceased to exist, and now it was the turn of 6 AARR. I never became a 3rd Hussar - may be had I joined it may not have survived. Before amalgamating the Squadron was given leave and off with our jeeps to Beirut? The road journey from Bethlehem? followed the coast, Nat [?], Haifa, Tyre, Sidon - Beirut?
The tented leave camp adjacent to a beach was [?] where you could bathe in the warm sea, looking inland some miles away you could see snow topped mountains.
There were many camp activities whist drives, bingo, horse riding which Tom insisted we tried. To ride out you had to be at the stables at 6.30 am. At that time and on leave but we made it. My first and only time in the saddle left two strong recollections, one the horse knew where it was going and it made no difference if I wished to go in a different direction. Two - the beast needed steering, this becoming obvious when we reached a fair sized boulder in the middle of the track which it fell over instead of passing on either side.
In Beirut the shops contained a much wider range of goods than Tel Aviv, with similar sidewalk bars and coffee houses and also an extensive night life. Along the sea front was the promenade with some large hotels.
The troop spent a full day following the coast road north from Beirut, Ju ? on Tripoli, into Syria and inland to Homs. The views along the coast road were magnificent, and to our surprise the road entered a tunnel some 600 yds long cutting off a headland.
Turning inland to Homs the scenery was a mixture of barren wastes and cultivated areas. Although we dismounted in Homs, after parking in its immensely wide street, we did not venture into any of the cafes or bars. We seemed to be the only troops of an nationality in the area - the locals seemed indifferent to our presence.
[?] ( Like all visitors to Bethlehem we started in the square and then to the Church of the Nativity to see the Manger and the Star. A few miles only separates Jerusalem and Bethlehem and the terraces on each side of the winding road are intensively cultivated.)
Our next visit was up in the hills to see the Cedars of Lebanon. The mountain road had steep drops on each side and as we were going uphill an Israeli Army 3 Ton coming downhill with the steepest drop on his side, forced us off the road and on to the camel track at the side. As the jeep came back on to the road surface, it want into a skid, eventually leaving the road and becoming airborne. Then I became airborne and can remember looking down as I went through the air and thinking at this speed it will be a hard landing. For a few minutes I must have been knocked out and when I focused my colleagues were looking down at me and I could see that my leg was twisted at a very unusual angle and must therefore be broken. Next thing I knew was that an Arab was crouched by my side holding my hand. Where he came from no one knew. An army ambulance arrived and I had a very uncomfortable ride to a Military Hospital in Tripoli. Most of the discomfort was caused in an attempt to keep the leg straight. One of the ambulance crew supported my heel by holding it in his clasped hands. Each bump of the well sprung ambulance sent his hands upwards and my leg, which didn't like it one little bit. The leg was covered from top to bottom and all round the foot in plaster of Paris. The orderlies were .
On return from the theatre I eventually surfaced with a dry mouth and dying for a drink. An orderly brought a drink in a metal bowl, but instead of the expected tea, it was a mixture of orange juice and milk, which somehow hadn't curdled. I didn't enjoy it but it was the only drink on offer that night.
Next day I was taken by ambulance to No 43 General Hospital in Beirut? After a visit to the operating theatre, I came back to the Ward to be strung up on a Balban Beam. As far as I was concerned, apart from a very painful leg (fractured femur) I was well aware of everything around me or so I thought. After about 4 days, the fog must have cleared and to my astonishment the solder in a bed 3 places away became completely unknown to me and was not Taffy Locke, the jeep driver when we left the road. On enquiry I was told that he was in the next ward. A few days later he came to see me, having only suffered cuts and bruises and a couple of days later was discharged.
It was a Military Hospital staffed by Army Nurses and QAINS all women, but all the orderlies were men.
After a week or so I am lying in bed and fingering a scar/scab on the side of my nose. The RUR (broken jaw) in the next bed said, "you are always touching that cut, why is it?"
"I'm puzzled I don't remember this when I was in hospital in Tripoli".
He laughed "You didn't have it until you got here. You were lying in bed face upward when you came back form the theatre and they erected the overhead beam and rest of the frame. In doing so the beam was not secure and it dropped on your face. That's how your nose was cut."
After a couple of weeks the swelling in my leg reduced and was much more comfortable.
Still fastened to the beam - pin through my shin bone had (string ?) going upwards to a pulley on the beam, then the length of f to another pulley and then downwards to below the foot of the bed, on the end of the string weights were attached to keep the leg straight, and to stop the pieces of broken bone overlapping one another. At about this time I was placed on "special diet". It consisted of chicken for the evening meal every night and a bottle of Guinness.
The leg was held loosely in a splint which started at the foot and then came up to the top of my thigh.
The novelty soon wore off when the plate contains chicken every night. However if the alternative looked appetising there was always someone who would exchange plates. Next to me the RUR eyed the bottle with envy and I shared it with him. With having a broken jaw his teeth were wired together, some teeth having been removed to allow solids into his mouth. Fluids were taken in by a straw - yes you can drink Guinness through a straw. From time to time the progress of the join was x rayed and it was interesting to see on the 'plate' the growth of new bone.
My RUR neighbour was discharged and most soldiers on the ward were discharged after a few days.
A Nigerian was admitted to have a tooth extracted in the Theatre. A gale was blowing when the sedated patient set off from the ward. Seemingly when outside an orderly let go of his end of the trolley to open the door to gain admittance to the Theatre area. The wind lifted the stretcher off the trolley and crashed to the ground. On returning to the ward the Nigerian had the lower part of his leg in plaster - still had his 'bad tooth.
To pass the time I was shown how to make cuddly toys. A pattern was cut from some suede like material with all the colours of the rainbow. It was then stitched together and kapok inserted to provide the filling, then stitches provided the eyes and mouth etc.
I quickly had a waiting list for the toys - nurses and orderlies coming from all over the hospital to be added to the list.
Weeks passed by, then one morning a different Doctor arrived. The weights were removed, the pulleys etc and beam removed and the pin removed from below my knee. A few days later - still confined to bed, transferred to No 12 Military Hospital at Sarafand. The journey was the first time I had left my bed and the ward in Beirut. The outside word looked wonderful as the train travelled slowly along. It stopped and started for no obvious reason, all very leisurely. During one of the stops food was served and as the steward moved down the gangway another train gently crashed into us. Although seated the knock was sharp, no discomfort to sitting passengers or to me on a stretcher - but the steward passed us travelling much faster than the train when it was in full flow, and disappeared into the area where the coaches are coupled together. A crash and a lot of cursing announced that he had come to grief.
At Sarafand the frame did not reappear, but to my disappointment I had to remain a bed patient. Physiotherapy increased and my name added to the list for return to UK. This was a surprise for I expected to be discharged and after a short period to the 3rd Hussars. Whilst here Stan O'Kell visited with news that Tom Bevan and others had gone home demobbed. Our old troop broken up and he was settling into the new Regiment.
On . We set sail on a Hospital Ship for the UK, calling at Malta to pick up more patients. My cot rocked gently to the movement of the boat and its motion stopped one become seasick, it did, just. No problems in the Med, but when we left it the swell of the Atlantic stopped me eating until we reached the Channel. The ship docked at Southampton and I was transferred to a hospital train which next day deposited a number of us at Sheffield, and then a short journey by ambulance to Winterton Lane Hospital.
After a few days I was allowed out of bed, learning to move with crutches, then walk supported by crutches, then using a walking stick. Physio was daily and had one visit to the theatre to increase the flexion of my knee.
On .. I was 'boarded', the result unfit for military service. A few days later to the demob centre at [?] and I was a civilian again.
My thanks to Sue Wilson for this account.
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